You might think that a staunch feminist like me wouldn’t even consider watching a movie that sympathetically portrays an exploiter of women. But I was open to the experience. A good film can be made out of any subject matter; it’s all in the execution. (Exhibit A: Boogie Nights, a long strange trip through the American porn industry in the ’70s.) And I was interested in Terrence Howard, whom I had recently seen in Four Brothers, and who received a nomination for Best Actor for his role in Hustle & Flow.
He did not disappoint. I was fascinated by his smoky, smooth-talking drawl, his screen presence, and well-rounded depiction of a smalltime crook who knows his life is crap and suddenly is desperate to do something about it. The fact that that “something” is to explore his long neglected musical talent is pretty much guaranteed to appeal to me. Music is really important to me, and it’s rare to see a movie that portrays the making of it in an interesting way. (I don’t count biopics like Ray or Walk the Line as being ABOUT music, necessarily; the music is there, but the focus is on the famous musician’s private life instead.) There are scenes in Hustle & Flow that really take you inside the creative process, and I loved that.
One scene in particular is a funny commentary on the (real and/or perceived) misogyny of hip hop lyrics: a song starts off with the title “Beat that Bitch”, the producer complains that people might find that degrading to women, the white guy sound technician says, “That’s only if you think ‘bitch’ refers to women — most of the bitches I know are guys”, the writer comes up with alternate title “Stomp that Ho” (LOL), then they all settle on “Whoop that Trick”. Finally! (I later learned from the special features that this whole section was based on real life songwriter Al Kapone‘s experiences.) This scene is great because it covers several angles of the issue. Yes, people judge hip hop songs without knowing the context of the words or how they are actually used in the communities that produce them, but yes, that context can be demeaning to women in a casual and thoughtless way.
If only the rest of the movie had been that sharp about the treatment of women. Alas, it was not. At the beginning of the movie, DJay (Terrence Howard’s character) is living with three women, two active sex workers (Lex and Nola) and one very pregnant ex-prostitute (Shug) who keeps the home and tends Lex’s baby. Shug and Nola are both very subservient to DJay (Shug to the point of trembling and cringing), while Lex is the opposite. Loud, rude, and self-centered, she verbally abuses everyone and screeches at DJay enough times that he finally kicks her out of the house about halfway through the movie. DJay is no hero in this scene (he heartlessly puts Lex’s screaming baby out on the stoop with her, despite the pleading sobs of the real caregiver, Shug), but he has been provoked enough that his actions look reasonable. And the message is clear to the other two women: challenge me the way Lex did, and you’re gone.
The movie never returns to the issue, and we never see Lex again. And rather than being troubled by it, Shug and Nola become much more explicitly supportive of DJay. They circle around DJay’s recording sessions like dogs hoping to get scraps from the table, and after shooing them away a few times, he allows them to remain. Shug ends up singing the hook for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”. DJay never thanks her, and in fact SHE thanks HIM for giving her the opportunity. Soon after, DJay chooses her as his mate. He can’t resist a woman who just keeps giving. Nola ends up shopping DJay’s songs around to radio stations and record labels. We see her charming men with sexual wiles and reused words of wisdom from DJay. And it works! She’s obviously learned a lot from him. And she uses those skills to… help him make money. Some more.
A quote from writer/director Craig Brewer, taken from the special features, pretty much sums up my problems with Hustle & Flow:
I remember being with all the actresses and saying, “Look, come at this movie however you want, but you need to know to some extent this is a movie which is about women getting behind their men, and it’s not necessarily […] something that you should view as weak. But it’s something that men really do want and really do need.”
I wouldn’t find that such a problematic statement if not for the movie’s proof that it ain’t a two way street. The men get all the support; the women get none. And the director doesn’t seem to think it’s even an issue.
Would I recommend it anyway? Yes. It’s a well crafted, entertaining film with some big problems that made me think. And Terrence Howard is hot. ‘Nuff said.